July 25, 2014

Review: Microsoft’s World Wide Telescope.

World Wide Telescope Logo.

World Wide Telescope Logo.

 

The market for astronomical online software has really exploded in the past few years, and amateur astronomers and educators have reaped the benefit. What was offered by many companies for prices sometimes over 100$ a pop now can be had for free. Programs such as HNSky, Stellarium, and Google Earth all offer Planetarium-style software that can be run right on your desktop. This week, we’ll look at Microsoft’s entry into the market with their World Wide Telescope (WWT).

One thing that initially struck me about the WWT was the ease for loading and use. Several larger astronomy programs have a knack for crashing or locking up mere mortal computers that many of us employ in the field. Released in early 2008, it runs pretty seamlessly for a Beta application. And this isn’t just a knock off of Google Earth; WWT gives you full access to a spectrum of surveys, from Hubble, WMAP to 2-MASS and more. The WWT promises unrestricted access to astrophysical data in an online community format. I’m particularly interested to see what users do with this access and the homemade tours they produce.

WWT Telescope II.

M92 Globular Cluster screenshot.

So, how useable is this software for in the field astronomy? Well, WWT does come with telescope controlling capability via the popular ASCOM series of controllers; in theory, one should be able to download the software plus the ASCOM drivers, connect and configure the telescope, and use it to point the instrument at various objects. Most new telescopes are now of the GOTO variety, although I’ve used similar software in a manual pointing capacity. I’ve heard of some users having difficulty getting the WWT to work in this regard…we welcome any personal success/failure stories as we have not yet attempted the use of WWT in this mode.

As a simulator, WWT does the job pretty well. For an example, we simulated next month’s South Pacific eclipse from various locales, and the WWT performed flawlessly. While use of the time controls and spatial location is pretty straight forward, we would like to see the inclusion of a local horizon and transit meridian to get a sense of our local bearings… an overall orientation does exist in the lower right side of the control panel but a plug-in addressing this would be handy, lest your telescope start pointing at the ground…

WWT Telescope III.

WWT Screenshot…its full of stars!

Which brings us to what I believe is the WWT’s greatest asset; its use for education. Star party clouded out? WWT would be a tremendous backup resource with its numerous tours of the sky; just keep in mind that it’s not a true “stand-alone” program as it does require an Internet connection to operate in the field. Right click on an object, and it gives you a quick look list of data. The format for star info is particularly refreshing… it gives you proper name, SAO, and just about any other pertinent catalog designation, all in one shot. This eliminates tedious cross referencing, as your scope may refer to a star by its esoteric forgotten medieval name (!) while you’re trying to hunt it down by SAO designator…

And heck, WWT is just plain fun to play with… I love the ability to probe the universe in infrared goggles, or pan around the Phoenix Lander site. Now in its second year, I’m really interested to see what folks will do with this new web-based tool and how new data will be integrated.  One could easily see amateur astronomers banding together to use the data to scout out new comets or asteroids, or creating historical, you-are-there tours of the cosmos, or perhaps simply sharing their latest images or favorites via the community. You can never have too many planetarium programs, and WWT makes a worthy and unique addition to any growing collection.

WWT screenshot.

Screenshot; exploring the Phoenix landing site with the WWT!